Friday, July 27, 2012

Senators Bennet and Udall urge action on Farm Bill

Posted By on Fri, Jul 27, 2012 at 2:09 PM

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-CO
You can be sure that something is a big deal on Capitol Hill when it provokes special-interest groups into spending $173.5 million on lobbyists alone.

Those were the numbers for the 2008 Farm Bill, according to a report from the advocacy group Food and Water Watch. That spending, which was reportedly among the highest ever for lobbying on any one piece of legislation, was small potatoes, however, compared to the bill itself, which directed about $307 billion in federal dollars to a huge slew of projects, from farm subsidies to research programs, from food stamp and nutrition programs to international aid. "Farm bills" of this magnitude, which are the federal government's primary tool for agricultural and food policy, and which go by many names (2008's was technically the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008), have been passed roughly every five years since 1965.

As with nearly everything related to the 112th United States Congress, however, the newest Farm Bill finds itself stuck between a rock and a hard place.

As Politico puts it:

Never before in modern times has a farm bill reported from the House Agriculture Committee been so blocked. POLITICO looked back at 50 years of farm bills and found nothing like this. There have been long debates, often torturous negotiations with the Senate and a famous meltdown in 1995 when the House Agriculture Committee couldn’t produce a bill. But no House farm bill, once out of committee, has been kept off the floor while its deadline passes.

Our own U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet cited that very Politico article in a speech he gave on the Senate floor yesterday, urging the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to bring the House Agriculture Committee's version of the Farm Bill to a floor vote — and to pass it.

Sen. Bennet also wrote a letter with Sen. Mark Udall urging House leaders to do the same. That letter, which was addressed to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., urged House action, especially with regard to the worsening drought:

Congress can be of immediate help by moving the Farm Bill forward. The tools farmers and ranchers use to manage risk—from invasive pests, to volatile commodity prices and adverse weather events like this summer’s drought—are authorized under the Farm Bill. Reauthorizing this legislation is the single best thing lawmakers can do to provide relief and certainty to our farmers and ranchers suffering from drought. Without Congressional action, many important Farm Bill programs will expire on September 30, 2012.

In fact, some permanent disaster programs lapsed at the end of September 2011, leaving a coverage gap for losses incurred during this 2012 growing season. Among these lapsed programs, the Livestock Forage Disaster Program, the Livestock Indemnity Program, and the Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees, and Farm-Raised Fish Program are particularly important for Colorado livestock producers facing drought-stricken pastureland and a tightened supply of feed. Passing the Farm Bill will put these programs into effect for Fiscal Year 2012 and ensure that ranchers can depend on these resources in the future.

Some background: On June 21, the Senate passed its version of the bill, called the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012. The bill passed 64-35, without the usual party-line rigidity. "Neither the majority vote nor the minority vote was a partisan vote," said Sen. Bennet in yesterday's speech. "This was the Senate operating as the Senate is meant to do."

The bill then moved to the House Agricultural Committee, where after a mark-up (and now retitled as the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2012) it passed 35-11 on July 11, also crossing partisan lines.

A bipartisan committee passage, however, doesn't mean everyone will be holding hands and singing Kumbaya on the House floor. Reportedly fearing a messy, divisive fight—and crucially, in an election year—Speaker Boehner has yet to bring the nascent bill to the floor.

"Instead," reports Politico, "Republicans are likely to try to extend the current farm policy that they’ve consistently decried as broken." And with less than a week of remaining days the Congress will spend in session before the August recess, it's increasingly looking as though this will be the case.

Of course, it's not as though the 600-page bill makes for easy compromise. In fact, it's something of a bipartisan mess, with odd alliances popping up all over the place. The issue of farm subsidies, to name one example, sees equal opposition from far-right free marketeers and progressives who note that subsidies artificially tip the scale away from poor farmers in developing countries. Meanwhile, the bill—and its redistributive measures for U.S. farmers—has rabid support from the hyper-conservative, otherwise anti-protectionist House Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa. That's just one contentious issue of many.

In any case, until the bill is brought to the House floor, no one has even the opportunity to find common ground. The House recess begins Aug. 4.

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